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The Crofts


In 1846, the flight of the emigrants escaping from a starving and heavily-oppressed Ireland started and was accelerated by the Potato Famine.  A great number of the Irish arriving by way of Liverpool settled in the western seaport towns, others continued an easterly journey to Prescot, St. Helen's, Warrington and further to Salford and Manchester.


At the time, the cutlery and tool industries in the Sheffield area were developing prosperously as a consequence of the recent Industrial Revolution.  There was obviously work to be had and this, over the next few years, undoubtedly attracted those immigrants who ventured over the Pennine hills and, with only very few exceptions, the immigrants arriving in the Sheffield area at these times had walked all the way from the Liverpool docks where they had disembarked.  A fair proportion of the Sheffield steel work at the time was centred upon an area known generally as 'the Crofts' and this had given rise to a maze of courtyards, gennels and squares, lined  and surrounded by a mass of working-class tenements and back-to-back houses with commonly shared outside latrine lavatories, water pumps, troughs, tanks and stand-taps.  The Ordnance Survey map of 1851 showed that, within a quarter-mile radius of Jervis Court, the site of the present Church at the top of White Croft, works operated producing steel and iron in Solly Street, Hollis Croft, Edward Street, Wheeldon Street, Well Meadow Street, Broad Lane, Tenter Street, Bailey Lane and Snow Lane.  Intermingled with these metal-producing works were scores of small (often one-man) workshops making cutlery, files, springs and general hand tools, hand-forging their end products under the most primitive of working conditions in dark corners and alleyways where the light of the sun never penetrated.  In the same radial area, the hundreds of dilapidated houses, thrown up by the Industrial Revolution gave shelter to those who toiled long hours in these local works and to their families.  'The Crofts' consisted of Hawley, Hollis, Lee, Pea, School, Sims,  White and Workhouse.  Of these, Hollis, Lee and White Crofts still exist under their original names, Pea Croft was renamed in 1901 as the lower half of Solly Street, and Workhouse Croft which extended from Campo Lane to West Bar is now Paradise Street.  It was here, in the Crofts, that most of the Irish Immigrants found work and refuge after their ordeals of hunger and travel and these were the surroundings in which they were to live, multiply and have their existence, die and be followed by their families for the next nearly ninety years.  Most of them, coming as they did from a predominantly Catholic country, were themselves devout Catholics - and this created the next problem. 




The first Catholic history of the Crofts is so inextricably linked with Saint Mary's (Marie's) church in Norfolk Row that it would be impossible to tell the story without extensive reference to the Mother church.  Following the Catholic Emancipation Act becoming statutory in 1829, Catholicism in Sheffield moved slowly but surely out of the dark ages of penal times until, on 25th March 1847, building commenced of a new church on the site, in Norfolk Row, of the modest chapel which served as an almost disguised place of worship for the remaining faithful Catholics in Sheffield.  Some reference will be made later to the survival of Catholic life and faith in the outlying districts of Sheffield as these also have a marked bearing on the central theme.  St. Mary's Church, costing £10,563., to seat 1500 people and completed three years after building commenced, was opened and dedicated on 11th September l850 and was the only place of Catholic worship in the whole of Sheffield.  Consequently, it attracted in their hundreds, the devout and faithful of the immigrants whose numbers by this time, had grown to thousands.  However, despite their common faith, the poverty and shabby life condition of the Crofts Catholics were so obvious that their presence was received with open hostility by some of the indigenous Catholics at Saint Mary's church.  False rumour has long had it that the immigrant Catholics were obliged to stand behind a roped-off part of the church while the autocratic English knelt and sat comfortably in their rented pews.  While it was true that many of the English had private pews, this rumour should be scotched in that the only 'ropes' which separated them from the immigrants were the silk cords, with their ring and hook attachments, which were commonplace at the ends of each pew which was reserved by the payment of pew rent.  In fact, such cords can still be found in many of the older non- Catholic churches and chapels.  It is reasonably certain however, that the immigrants were restricted to the side aisles of the new church and this, coupled with the overt antagonism which they appear to have faced, induced in a relatively brief period of time after St. Mary's was opened, a sense of resentment among the occupants of the self-made ghettoes around the Crofts which culminated, in 1851, in their virtually open rebellion  - a rebellion which almost bordered upon schism sufficiently serious to bring down the wrath of the local Bishop. 




Father Edmund Scully, formerly Head Priest of St. Patrick's in Leeds, had been appointed to take charge of the new Sheffield St. Mary's shortly after its opening.  It was fortuitous, and certainly fortunate for the subsequent history of St. Vincent's Mission in Sheffield, that Fr. Scully - himself a missioner from Ireland - who had been prominent in assisting in the establishments of St. Vincent's, Castleknock, St. Peter's, Phibsborough and St. Vincent's, Cork was the man to deal with the crisis which arose in Sheffield in 1851.


The most militant of the Crofts Catholics had determined to give form to their resentment by cutting themselves away from St. Mary's and, to this end, had actually purchased a building in Queen Street (later to become the Queen Street School and later still the site of the now-demolished Wardley's furniture warehouse) and were actually working on its conversion as their own church, to be named St. Patrick's, when the wrathful Fr. Scully descended upon them, armed with the full powers and authority of the Bishop whom the rebels had not even consulted, threatened the recalcitrants with all forms of perdition, hell-fire and damnation and forbade them to do any further mischief.  His powers must have been highly persuasive in that the potential schism was crushed but the kindly priest was forced to acknowledge, as a consequence, that the serious resentments of  his Crofts flock were not entirely without foundation.  With his knowledge of and sympathy for his poor and dispirited fellow- countrymen, he determined from that moment on to found for them a school-chapel somewhere in the middle of the Crofts where the immigrant Catholics could find, once again, their own identity and faith.  Despite meeting some opposition to his plans from some of his native parishioners, he embarked upon a fund-raising campaign, undertaking mortgages, pledging private loans and begging individual contributions, even in the poor Crofts, as he went along.  He was also a man of considerable foresight since his close association with the Vincentian Missioners in Dublin had persuaded him that the best palliative for turbulent Irish parishioners would be the control of Irish priests and, having made up his mind to build a school-chapel, he forthwith wrote to the Mission in Ireland and received their tentative agreement to provide the priests when the time and circumstances were right for the foundation of a new Mission in Sheffield. 





Mr. Matthew Ellison Hadfield, the architect of St. Mary's church, had been entrusted by Fr. Scully with the task of finding a suitable site for his Crofts school-chapel and, on Good Friday 1851, Mr. Hadfield, who was later to play his own important role in the new Mission, discovered a plot of ground for sale at the top of White Croft, just above Baker's Yard, later Bakers Lane.  It is important at this point to comment upon the term 'school - chapel' and the juxtaposition of the two words.  Then, as now, the Catholic emphasis was laid primarily on the provision of a school for the children which could also be used temporarily as a place of worship and this priority has been paramount, and successfully so, in the development and spread of the Catholic Faith in Sheffield.


The White Croft plot, together with a site behind it known as Jervis Court, was purchased for £700 at a 4 per cent mortgage rate.  The 1851 Ordnance Survey Map shows that Jervis Court, with a lot of old houses on it, was situated on what became the west and main entrance of the 1856 church to a depth of approximately 35 feet along the main nave and south (St.  Joseph's) aisle.  Behind that and included in the transaction was a large open courtyard sloping down to the rear of the Ragged School in Bakers Yard.  Most of this courtyard was covered in 1856 by the main nave and east end of the church including the high altar and chancel and the original Lady  aisle.  The upper churchyard, adjoining the main entrance and the gennel leading from Solly Street to the top of White Croft (subsequently named White Croft Passage) were acquired later, on a 900 year Lease, from the Trustees of the Hollis Hospitals and, in 1858, the buildings bounded by the gennel, Solly Street and the north side of the present church (the slopeway to Solly Street) were acquired.  This acquisition included the site of the former main school but not the main school yard, an area which, until 1890, was the work-yard and stock-yard of Spencer's Iron Works at the junction of Solly Street and Pea Croft. 


Building of the school-chapel, to Mr. Hadfield's design, was commenced promptly by Fr. Scully in 1851, helped by a Government Grant of £530.  When the two-storey school, sited in White Croft above the west end of Baker's Yard, was completed in July 1853 with accommodation for fifty scholars, the building, the fitting-out of the two classrooms added to legal and other expenses of £100., had cost a total of £1,850.  The following is an extract from the national trade publication 'The Builder', 3rd September 1853....'The new Roman Catholic Schools in White Croft....are now completed.  They consist of a girls schoolroom on the upper floor 75 feet by 30 feet; a boys schoolroom 50 feet by 30 feet with classroom 22 feet by 23 feet; also library, separate entrances etc.  The cost is about £1200 raised by voluntary contributions, with the aid of £500 from the Committee of Council on Education.  The adjoining property has been bought and will form a site for the erection, at some future period, of a new church'.  Father Scully had diligently raised the necessary funds during the two years since his stormy encounter with the Crofts Catholics over the ill-founded Queen Street project.  The archives of Messrs. Hadfield, Cawkwell and Davidson record: 'The school buildings consisted of a girls schoolroom 75 feet by 30 feet, on an upper floor, boys schoolroom 50 feet by 30 feet, classroom 23 feet by 22 feet and library on the ground floor and a basement kitchen'.  The plan drawing also shows that there were separate entrances for girls and boys from White Croft, the upper entrance for girls giving on to a flight of stone steps leading to the the upper floor, and the lower entrance, for boys, giving directly on to a cloakroom for hats and coats and to the small classroom adjoining the boys main entrance.  Exactly on the site above the two entrances was a square bell-tower, and the  upper gable-end of the schoolrooms had a large rose window and a statue-niche overlooking White Croft.


On 2 August 1853, the school opened its doors for the first time under the Mistressship of an Irish lady, Mrs. McCarthy, a qualified school mistress whose husband, Charles, was the then School Master of St. Mary's School on Surrey Street.  Still, Fr. Scully's problems were not over since, despite the original promise to provide priests for the new Mission by Father Dowley, Provincial of the Vincentians in Ireland, he twice decided to abandon the idea and had written as much to Fr. Scully.  This good priest was, however, fully determined that his now-beloved Crofts flock should not be abandoned.  He persevered, cajoled and persuaded and, eventually, with his school-chapel completed and opened, he finally won the day by acquiring, on 24th October, number 90 Garden Street as a Community House for the promised clergy.  This point swung matters with Fr. Dowley and so the scene was set for the first members of Saint Vincent's Congregation of the Mission to arrive, and, for the first time in England, embark upon their much-needed care of the Crofts Catholics - and what an arrival that turned out to be!



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